The Seat Leon is a Volkswagen Golf with a funkier set of clothes and a significantly smaller price tag

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For a while now it has been difficult to put a finger on exactly what role Seat plays in the Volkswagen Group hierarchy. With Skoda buttoning up the bottom end of the market, Audi at the top and VW itself somewhere in the middle, it’s not immediately obvious where Seat and its products like the new Leon fit.

But, we are now told, it is VW’s sporting brand, with Latin blood in its veins and a purposeful look in its eye. But if Seat is to become VW’s answer to Alfa Romeo (a statement made by VW chief Piech many moons ago that company management still wince at), it needs some good, solid product with real sporting credentials. So how does the Leon shape up?

Cloth bucket seats with integrated head restraints are comfortable and supportive.

On paper, very well indeed. Underneath, it’s a previous-generation Golf with VW’s latest engines. This means struts at the front and a multi-link rear axle that provides much better wheel control than the previous cheap ‘n’ cheerful torsion beam axle.

Buyers can choose from an entry-level 84bhp 1.4 petrol unit, but most petrol buyers will go for one of the more advanced TSI engines, either a 104bhp 1.2 or 123bhp 1.4. On the diesel front, there’s a super-frugal 104bhp 1.6 TDI (with CO2 as low as 99g/km in fuel-sipping Ecomotive spec), or a 138bhp 2.0 TDI.

Then there are the performance models, which Seat has become a quieter achiever in. The FR+ gets a 208bhp 2.0 TSI, and the fire-breathing 261bhp version of the 2.0 TSI for the Cupra R. Those looking for a sporting diesel are even catered for with a 168bhp 2.0 TDI in the FR+.

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Seat badging

Evolving a design language that can be applied to all your models is one thing, but by creating three distinct ranges – Leon, Altea and Altea XL – and making them all look like different sized versions of the same thing is, we feel, a bit excessive from Seat.

Don’t misunderstand us, we think the Leon is a fine-looking car. But we wonder whether people are going to believe in its sporting credentials when it looks so much like its sisters, both of which are variations on the MPV theme.

CD/radio has aux socket as standard. Easy to control, but sound quality is average

Leons, however hot, are only available with five doors, although with the rear door handles sunk into the rear three-quarter windows it has an almost coupé-like profile. Cupra R models take this further with tinted rear windows and polished black pillars to help the impression of an unbroken window line.

Other styling details unique to the Cupra R are the 19-inch alloys, black door mirror casings, different bodywork front and rear and twin centre rear exhausts. This is sufficient to give the Cupra a sense of purpose and make the connection to Seat’s successful motorsport campaign, but it’s still not enough to distance it from the similarly shaped Altea MPV.

The Leon’s sloping A-pillars, thick C-pillars and narrow rear window make for less-than-adequate all-round visibility.

The key engineering tweak Seat brought along with the mid-life changes to the Leon was the introduction of a kind of electronic limited-slip differential for the performance models, similar to the systems used in the Alfa Romeo Mito and Golf GTI.

XDS works together with the ESP (now standard across the range), and uses electronics to brake either of the driven wheels if it loses traction, while diverting the engine’s torque to the other driven wheel, giving a similar effect to a mechanical limited-slip differential.


Seat Leon dashboard

Unlike some cars that try to be terribly clever and end up disappearing down packaging blind alleys, the Seat Leon instead focuses on doing only the conventional things you’d expect of any such car, but doing them very well. It may look like an MPV but, unlike the Altea and Toledo, it’s just a straightforward hatch.

However you’ll not fail to notice just how airy and spacious the cabin is. This would prove a comfortable home for four six footers which means the more usual cargo of parents and a couple of kids will find space to spare in every important direction. The rear seat doesn’t do any more than split or fold though, and boot is not as large as that of some rivals.

Cupra gets the same fantastic alloy pedals as the GTi and S3. Shame that the brake pedal set-up doesn’t make the most of the perfect spacing.

Further proof that this is no MPV can be found in the seating position, which is very definitely that of a conventional car, not an elevated people carrier. The driving environment is generally good and with a height-adjustable seat and a telescopic steering column, a decent driving position is never more than a few seconds away.

The optional media system uses a five-inch colour touchscreen that’s usual top-notch VW-Group fayre, with clear, easy-to-use sat nav, DAB radio and full Bluetooth integration that can stream music wirelessly from an iPhone.

Interior plastics are a mix of high-quality, textured swathes contrasted with less impressive hollow-feeling parts like the flat underside of the steering wheel in the performance models and some dash control switches.


1.2-litre TSI Seat Leon engine

Where the 1.2 TSI Seat Leon really scores is on refinement. The engine rewards you for driving it smoothly and there is no aural feedback to suggest you’re giving the downsized engine a good thrashing in everyday situations, even if you sometimes need to make progress when off the motorway.

The 1.2 TSI also feels a good deal lighter at the front-end than some of the larger diesel-engined Leons in the range. It’s a trait that continues in the more powerful 2.0 TSI engine in the FR+; you’ll rarely, if ever, be without ample acceleration.

There are no engines to avoid in the Leon range. The wide range of petrol and diesel units impress

The mid-range 1.4 TSI engine does its best work below 4800rpm and although it will rev well beyond 5,600rpm this is where the power peaks and the linearity beyond makes extending it a bit pointless.

The staple 1.6 TDI offers a healthy 184lb ft of torque at 1500rpm, but it can require plenty of pressure on the throttle to really get it moving. Taller ratios on the Ecomotive model also have a tendency to have a power-sapping effect, but adjust your driving style accordingly and this can be overcome. 

The potent 2.0 TSI unit in the Cupra R is no less impressive in this installation than it is in the Scirocco, with 258lb ft of torque providing a huge amount of urgency from quite low revs.

The redline arrives very quickly if you want it to, so in spirited driving you’ll be making good use of the gearbox but it does the job well. The throw has been shortened for the ‘R’ over the Cupra and it has helped make it a slightly more defined shift as well as quicker.


Seat Leon cornering

The Seat Leon rides and handles just as well as a Golf. This is where VW’s investment in that multi-link rear axle really pays dividends. It allows the Leon to corner with absolute assurance, exhibiting good grip in all weathers, while serving up a ride that many cars costing twice as much would be proud to call their own.

Even the electric power steering – a configuration that often leads to compromised road feel – transmits enough information about the road surface to allow the car to be driven with real confidence.

Steering wheel is small and chunky. Looks good, too. Useful stereo controls are standard

Interested in the sound of a diesel hot hatch? The 2.0 TDI FR+ model also has plenty to recommend. The ride is firm, but not unusually so for a hot hatch, and body control is commendable. Turn-in isn’t razor-sharp, but there’s enough poise and steering feel to make snaking progress enjoyable.

The big wheels do telegraph bumps and thumps into the cabin, but there’s never a rattle to be heard. Grip is impressive, positively supplemented by the XDS electronic differential and well-judged traction control. Stopping power is good after a degree of dead travel from the big pedal.

The Leon Cupra R drives like a very well-sorted fast hatch. It’s stable even under extreme braking and copes well with rapid mid-bend steering adjustments, remaining unflustered and benefiting from ample grip. Understeer is evident if you really want to find the Cupra R’s limits.

Ride quality is generally well-judged though there can be quite bouncy over undulating road surfaces and there’s noticeable tyre-roar from the standard 19-inchers. But overall the Cupra R gels well and does a good job of being entertaining without being too hardcore on the road and also well-sorted for track driving if it appeals.


Seat Leon 2005-2012

Like most other family hatches, the Seat Leon line-up has a super-frugal ace up its sleeve. The Ecomotive ticks all the usual eco boxes, including stop-start and aerodynamic tweaks to help keep fuel bills down, with the results being claimed combined economy of 74.3 and tax-friendly CO2 emissions of 99g/km. Drive this model within its comfort zone, and 60mpg-plus will easily be achieved.

In the 1.2 TSI model, we rarely achieved above 35mpg on our test route, which included everything from two long motorway runs, country lanes, city centres and heavy traffic. Official economy figures aren’t usually to be trusted, but the distance from the official 52.3mpg figure is a long way off even allowing for this.

The glove box is disappointingly small, and the cover feels especially cheap

One thing that all Leons offer is excellent value, particularly if you go for the Copa trim. Available from under £16,500 for the 1.2 TSI, Copa Leons offer a sat-nav and multimedia system, rear parking sensors, special Copa upholstery, dual zone climate control, automatic lights and wipers and leather trim for the steering wheel as standard.

There’s more value to be had with FR+ models, too. Over the FR model it recently replaced, the FR+ gets fresh 18-inch five-spoke alloys, bi-xenon, self-adjusting headlamps, and an extensive media pack. Purchased off the options list, these upgrades would have cost around £2500 on the old FR, but the FR+ commands a premium of just over £1000.

The standard non-turbo 1.4 petrol model offers the cheapest entry point to Leon ownership, costing a very reasonable £14,885. It’s cheap to insure, too, in group eight, but we’d recommend beginning your consideration from the 1.2 TSI Copa model upwards given the better engine, equipment levels and desirability, with much improved economy and CO2 thrown in too. 


3 star Seat Leon

We really like the Seat Leon. The car looks good and works well as a conventional family hatch. It’s not trying to be clever and, in many ways, therein lies the root of its appeal.

It’s a wide and varied range, that is pleasing in almost all its applications. The diesel models are cheap to run and come well equipped, while the TSI petrols offer pleasing performance and similar equipment levels, if slightly more expensive running costs.

Capable and good value, but missing some magic

Yet for all its competence and ability, this is not a sporting car in its more humble guises in the way that Seat would like you to see it. In fact its real appeal lies in offering a better-looking, cut-price route into Golf ownership and, in that role it feels very comfortable indeed.

Considering the FR+ TDI offers a very similar setup to the five-door Golf GTD, yet costs a staggering seven grand less when specced like-for-like, it’s hard not to find it an attractive financial proposition, and also one that very much benefits from its own aesthetic versus the ubiquitous Golf.

And the Cupra R? It is not a new handling or performance benchmark, but even with such an array of similar-ish hot hatches around it makes more sense than most. It’s good value, well equipped and focused enough to satisfy enthusiasts looking for an engaging family car that’s worth taking to a track day occasionally.

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Seat Leon 2005-2012 First drives